The eastern Indian state of Odisha has set Nov. 30 as the final date for victims of deadly anti-Christian riots in 2008 to claim additional compensation. The Odisha government says it is acting as per a Supreme Court order but church leaders, while grateful for the offer, say it is impractical. Kandhamal district witnessed one of the worst anti-Christian riots in India’s history on Aug. 23, 2008, following the assassination of a Hindu leader, the monk Swami Laxmanananda Saraswati, who was shot dead as Hindus celebrated Janmashtami, the birthday of Hindu lord Krishna. A Maoist leader, Sabyasachi Panda, later said his associates had decided to eliminate Saraswati as he was “spreading social unrest.” However, Hindu radicals doubted that story and rounded on Christian targets, dubbing the murder a Christian conspiracy. The unabated violence that continued for seven weeks killed about 100 people, rendered 56,000 homeless and destroyed 6,000 houses and 300 churches.
In an advertisement published in local Odia language newspapers on Oct. 31, Kandhamal District Collector Brunda D. said: “This is to notify that those who received compensation for the lives lost and houses destroyed in the 2008 violence must apply soon for enhanced compensation and to be eligible to get additional compensation as per the Supreme Court of India order.” Father Madan Sual Singh, director of Jana Vikas (people’s development), a social service wing of the Archdiocese of Cuttack-Bhubaneswar that covers Kandhamal district, was skeptical that victims would see any of the promised money. “We welcome the step taken by the state government but it is unpractical because it has not set a mechanism for how to reach those affected,” he told ucanews. “The government has published the scheme in the newspapers but will the message reach the genuine victims, who live in the far-flung areas, in the forests and farms, where they have limited source of information? “If the government had engaged religious institutions, people who work at the grassroots level, to reach those victims, it would had more effect. The government, as well as the social activists and NGOs, does not have enough manpower to reach those lowly people who really deserve compensation.” Brunda D. said that anyone who had applied for compensation from the government since 2017 must contact the District Collector Office at Phulbani without delay. She insisted that no complaints or applications in relation to additional compensation would be accepted after Nov. 30 and any unclaimed funds would be returned to the government. A Protestant church that was among Christian property attacked during the 2008 riots in Kandhamal. (ucanews photo) Horrific attacks
Church leaders, civil society members, human rights activists and social workers have long been campaigning for the implementation of the Supreme Court order that awarded compensation to the survivors of the 2008 attacks. They made the demand in person when they met Brunda D. at her district headquarters office in Phulbani on Oct. 21, 2017, and she promised she would ensure the compensation was paid to victims as soon as possible. The Supreme Court order came in response to a petition filed by then Archbishop Raphael Cheenath of Cuttack-Bhubaneswar in 2008 seeking extra relief and justice for the Kandhamal victims. Chief Justice T.S. Thakur and Justice Uday Umesh Lalit duly delivered the Supreme Court’s judgment in August 2016, declaring that the quantity and scope of compensation provided for a few categories of damages were insufficient. The court directed the Odisha government to pay a further 300,000 rupees (US$4,200) on top of what had been handed out by the state and federal governments to the families of those killed. In case of serious injuries, it ordered additional compensation of 30,000 rupees and for simple minor injuries extra compensation of 10,000 rupees. The court said it found it “quite disturbing” that out of 315 reports filed of communal violence, not a single case of wrongdoing had been confirmed or an offender convicted. It asked the state government to review the cases and charge those responsible. For 11 years Christians have been horrified at the lack of action taken by Odisha police and authorities against those responsible for the horrific attacks. Soon after the riots finally ended, four Christians including an illiterate 13-year-old boy were picked up by Hindu activists, beaten and dumped in police stations. Police would not publicly name the Christians but Praveen Togadia, leader of the right-wing organization Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), took the law into his own hands, made public their names and accused them of killing Saraswati. After detaining the group for 40 days, police could not make a single charge stick and released them. Detectives then arrested seven non-Catholic Christians, including a mentally challenged man from the remote area of Kotagarh. On the day the charge sheet was filed in court, Togadia even demanded that “the pope should apologize to Hindus.” Father Dibakar Parichha, a lawyer priest who, along with other legal groups from different parts of India, has been helping victims down the years, told ucanews: “We thank the court for taking the case seriously and awarding compensation to the victims. Although it is late, it is better late than never. “We are in constant touch with government officials, the courts and the victims, and we will do our best that they get adequate compensation for one of the worst [episodes of] anti-Christian violence in our country. “Although it will be difficult to reach the victims in such a short period of time due to various problems to do with communication, changes of address, transport and limited sources, I am hopeful we will meet the demand.” A.C. Michael, a Christian leader whose organization Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) has been one of the petitioners on behalf of the Kandhamal victims, said he was still pursuing a few outstanding claims. The former member of the Delhi Minorities Commission added: “We are in touch with all concerned to check if anyone still has not applied for compensation. If we get to know of any who have not claimed before the deadline, we do plan to apply on their behalf.”
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